By Paul Hughes, Republican-American
HARTFORD — Black and Hispanic lawmakers on Tuesday outlined a wide-ranging racial justice agenda for a special legislative session later this month and an expected follow-up session in September.
Members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus laid out broad proposals for expanding voting rights, police accountability, environmental protections for minority communities, and economic, housing and educational opportunities.
Caucus members were unsure how much of their “Agenda for Equity” would get accomplished in the upcoming special session, but they plan to pursue any unfinished business when the General Assembly returns again in September.
“Although it is aggressive, I believe we are going to get most of it through,” said state Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., D-75th District, the vice chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
The Waterbury lawmaker said the killing of George Floyd, a Minnesota man, in police custody and other deaths at the hands of police are sweeping away resistance in the legislature to a reckoning of racial and social justice.
“This place is notoriously very slow. I come from the private sector, and it has taken me a while to adjust to the slow pace at which government works, but I believe it is an aggressive agenda, and if there was ever a perfect time to get something done, this is the time,” he said.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, reported Tuesday the House and Senate will be reconvening the week of July 20, and he also said there will be a subsequent special session in September.
Ritter said the two special sessions and the regular 2021 session will provide three opportunities for enacting legislation for reforming policing and promoting racial and social justice.
“The issue is going to be how much we actually do in July, and how much we are going to do in September, and how much we are going to actually do next year,” said state Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford.
Members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus will be pushing to get as much of their agenda done in the July and September special sessions while momentum remains strong and public attention is focused on racial and social justice.
McCrory drew a parallel to the sweeping firearms laws that were adopted months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six educators in December 2012.
“If we would have waited for another six months or a year, you wouldn’t have gotten everything that we got done,” he said.
The agenda of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus goes beyond Gov. Ned Lamont’s stated preferences for addressing police accountability and expanding the availability of absentee ballots for voters in the July special session.
Lamont told reporters in New Haven on Tuesday that police and absentee ballot reform should remain the focus of the July session, but left open the possibility of tackling more issues later this year.
“There may be a few other things we can get done without big public hearings, but I think the public has the right to weigh in on bigger issues and bigger decisions, and that’ll probably have to wait until the fall,” he said.
The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus released a general outline of their proposals Wednesday while members work behind the scenes on drafting legislation and coalition building:
On police accountability, the caucus wants to give cities and towns the opportunity expand oversight, and also to establish independent investigations of police misconduct and independent prosecutions of criminal wrongdoing.
On voting reform, the caucus shares Lamont’s objective of removing restrictions on absentee ballots so more voters can take advantage of this alternative to in-person voting.
On housing, the agenda speaks to encouraging homeownership opportunities for minorities and holding municipalities accountable if they put up barriers to integration.
On economic justice, the caucus is proposing specifically to extend workers’ compensation coverage to include COVID-19 as a work-related illness, and generally, to providing long-term investments and economic opportunities in low-income neighborhoods.
On environmental justice, Reyes said he wants to pass legislation amending the environmental justice law to limit the number of pollution sources allowed within a single geographic area and increase opportunities for public participation in permitting decisions.